"Island of Cats": There are more than a million cats in Cyprus - but the corona virus kills them


"Island of Cats": There are more than a million cats in Cyprus - but the corona virus kills them

1.2 million people live in Cyprus - and at least as many cats. According to some estimates, there are even more cats than people on the Mediterranean island. But the number of four-legged friends is currently declining rapidly: A variant of the corona virus that is deadly for cats has been spreading on the island for about six months.

The history of the cat population in Cyprus begins in a monastery that - appropriate to the historical event - bears the name "St. Nicholas of the Cats". As the travel guide "Lonely Planet" reports, the convent was founded on the edge of a vast peninsula on the southern tip of Cyprus in 327 AD by the country's first Byzantine governor. Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, encouraged the construction of the monastery. However, the entire island was suffering from a severe drought at the time and was being plagued by poisonous snakes. According to both the travel guide and the Reuters news agency, Helena is said to have imported several boatloads of cats from Egypt to Cyprus in the hope that the cats would chase the snakes.

According to the "Cyprus Tourism" portal, two different bells then rang in the monastery: one that called people to pray and another that announced their meals to the cats. After eating, the velvet paws should go hunting. The plan worked: The four-legged friends quickly contained the snake plague - and over time have multiplied rapidly. "Nowadays, the many cats snoozing in the shade of the convent's colonnade far outnumber the handful of lonely sisters who now tend the place," the Lonely Planet article reads.

Contrary to previous assumptions, the oldest domestic cat to date does not come from Egypt, but from Cyprus. This was proven by a find from 2004. At that time, according to the "Welt", 9,500-year-old remains of a domestic cat appeared in a grave near the Cypriot village of Parekklisia. The animal was buried there with a human, probably with its owner. This suggests that the people of Cyprus were the first people in the world to tame wild cats. Today it is mainly stray cats that populate the Mediterranean island - often also called "island of cats". The animals can be found on every corner and sometimes live in large colonies: on the beach, in restaurants, in hotel complexes, in cemeteries. The strays are so numerous that they have become a problem for the country, just as snakes once were.

"We're dealing with a wildcat population that's approaching a million, that's a rough estimate," Dino Ayiomamitis, chairman of the Cat PAWS Society, told Reuters two years ago. The volunteer feeds around 200 cats a day at various locations around Nicosica, the capital of Cyprus. The local newspaper "Cyprus Mail" estimates the number of wild cats even higher at 1.5 million. The biggest problem is the sheer number of animals, as David Fender, operations manager and chairman of the Malcolm Cat Protection Society, told Reuters: "Lots of unneutered and unneutered cats means many kittens each year." The high population density of the animals, coupled with a lack of prey and water, means that the four-legged friends are often dependent on human supplies.

In addition to animal-loving residents - almost every village has its own "Cat Lady" - a whole range of animal welfare organizations take care of the spreaders. Volunteers like Dino Ayiomamitis feed and capture the cats to be spayed or neutered. Some are then placed in prison, while others are released back into the wild. The Malcolm Cat Protection Society animal shelter adopts about 100 animals a year, but the number of new arrivals far exceeds the number of departures, David Fender complained to Reuters.

The government of Cyprus supports the animal protection organizations with financial resources. In 2011, the country suspended aid because of the economic crisis. The state is now providing 75,000 euros a year for cat sterilization again, according to "Cyprus Mail" last year it was even 100,000 euros. A drop in the ocean, say the animal rights activists. They are now facing another serious problem: a variant of the feline corona virus has been spreading to Cyprus for about six months. There is no danger to humans, but the virus causes feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) in cats, which Dinos Ayiomamitis estimates has killed at least 300,000 cats so far.

According to a report by "t-online", the virus is transmitted via the smallest particles of faeces as well as saliva and nasal secretions. If cats have an intact immune system, the disease does not necessarily have to break out. However, many of the animals in Cyprus suffer from other infections, malnutrition or parasites, which means that when infected, the immune system is so weakened that disease develops. In an interview with the AFP news agency, veterinarian Kostis Larkou spoke of natural selection. The weakest cats will die and only the strongest among them are able to produce antibodies and live on. However, this is a very small proportion – 90 percent of the animals could die.

According to a report by Austrian Radio, there are two treatment options for the virus: the anti-Covid drug molnupiravir or the antiviral tablet GS-441524, which is chemically similar to remdesivir, which is used to treat Covid-19. The tablet is therefore approved for import into Cyprus, but the treatment costs 3,000 to 7,000 euros per cat - and is therefore hardly affordable. "I sincerely hope that there is no intention of allowing the disease to spread in order to reduce the population of stray cats," animal rights activist Dino Ayiomamitis told AFP. Otherwise Cyprus could soon become the "island of the dead cats".

Sources: AFP, "Der Standard", "Cyprus Mail", "Cyprus Tourism", "Die Welt", "Lonely Planet", Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, "t-online"